Birds can be choir masters, curiosity is holy, and there's more to life than clarity.
"In Dickinson’s teen years, a wave of religious revivals moved through New England. One by one, her friends and family members made the public profession of belief in Christ that was necessary to become a full member of the church.
Although she agonized over her relationship to God, Dickinson ultimately did not join the church–not out of defiance but in order to remain true to herself: “I feel that the world holds a predominant place in my affections. I do not feel that I could give up all for Christ, were I called to die” (L13).
By the time the First Congregational Church moved to a site near the Homestead on Main Street in 1868, Emily Dickinson had stopped attending services altogether."
_________ is spiritual but not religious. She believes in God, kind of, but doesn't go to church. She is an avid fan of Emily Dickinson and Alfred North Whitehead. She holds them together in her mind's eye, learning from each, and has developed what she calls a Whitehead-Dickinson theology. She shares some of its key ideas with me:
Faith is a fine invention, but in an emergency it helps to have a microscope.
Don't give yourself away to religion, or to Christ, if it takes you away from the world.
You don't have to go to church to worship; you can go into your backyard and let the birds be your choir. Let nature be your sanctuary.
Live with a sense of wonder; be curious about everything: death, flies, shadows, relationships, tables and chairs, salvation, passion, botany, violence, surprise, love.
Know that whole of life is a series of nows and that "forever" is composed of nows.
Know that the infinite is in the finite, the universe in each grain of sand (Blake). Pay attention to the grains.
Don't think everything needs to be clear. Some of the most important things in life are vague: love, relationships, doubt, trust, and anxiety.
Remember that an overriding preoccupation with clarity is the bane of small minds.
Leave room for irreverence, for poking fun at religion. Reverence and irreverence are close cousins.
Be rebellious when necessary; be true to yourself. Don't think you have to be like everybody else or that everybody needs to like you..
Don't be afraid of solitude. Religion is what we do with our solitariness.
It's OK to stay in your room sometimes even when people wish you'd get out more.
Love the Bible for its language, but don't make a god of it and think that you have to believe it all.
Dwell in possibility, a fairer house than prose. Know that possibilities are as real as actualities, just different.
Believe in God if you can. There is, after all, something more.
It's OK to be pissed at God when God feels absent.
Keep your heart set on the thing with feathers: hope.
Don't think everything needs to be explained.
Beware of people who have to define everything.
Be at home with dashes used as pauses, breaks, changes of mind, or acts of assertion.
Make sure you leave room for wild nights.
I cannot discern which of these are indebted to Whitehead and which to Dickinson. Most of them contain elements of each. But together they form a complex of ideas that make sense to _________. I share them just in case some, maybe even all, make sense to you, too.
More traditional Christians and others may wish for a more relational and socially-engaged form of theology. Her theology seems personal and private, but not out to transform the world. She's no Joan of Arc.
But she is, after all, an introvert and a free spirit. In the house of theology there's room for her, too. Something tells me Whitehead would understand and like her. Maybe Emily, too.
- Jay McDaniel
I Dwell in Possibility (Poem 466) by Emily Dickinson
I dwell in Possibility – A fairer House than Prose – More numerous of Windows – Superior – for Doors –
Of Chambers as the Cedars – Impregnable of eye – And for an everlasting Roof The Gambrels of the Sky –
Of Visitors – the fairest – For Occupation – This – The spreading wide my narrow Hands To gather Paradise –
“Hope” is the thing with feathers
by Emily Dickinson
“Hope” is the thing with feathers - That perches in the soul - And sings the tune without the words - And never stops - at all -
And sweetest - in the Gale - is heard - And sore must be the storm - That could abash the little Bird That kept so many warm -
I’ve heard it in the chillest land - And on the strangest Sea - Yet - never - in Extremity, It asked a crumb - of me.
Faith is a fine invention (Poem 202) by Emily Dickinson
‘Faith’ is a fine invention For Gentlemen who see! But Microscopes are prudent In an Emergency!
Some keep Sabbath going to Church (Poem 236) by Emily Dickinson
Some keep the Sabbath going to Church I keep it, staying at Home With a Bobolink for a Chorister And an Orchard, for a Dome.
Some keep the Sabbath in Surplice I, just wear my Wings And instead of tolling the Bell, for Church, Our little Sexton – sings. God preaches, a noted Clergyman And the sermon is never long, So instead of getting to Heaven, at last I’m going, all along.